This week the MotoGP action moves from sun-blessed Jerez to Le Mans, where rain is forecast on and off throughout the weekend.
Wet weather is a common feature of the French Grand Prix, traditionally staged at this time of year. Even last season, when the event was postponed until October due to the pandemic, race day was dominated by rainfall.
The first four races of this season have all been run in fully dry conditions, so this weekend’s likely contrast should add an interesting new angle to the dynamics of the 2021 MotoGP World Championship.
Most motorcycle racers much prefer to race in the dry, because track conditions are more consistent and allow riders to fully exploit the performance of their machines.
However, Alex Marquez (LCR Honda CASTROL Honda RC213V) has very fond memories of last October’s rain-soaked French GP. The 2019 Moto2 World Champion was contesting only his ninth MotoGP race but stormed through the pack in treacherous conditions to claim a magnificent second-place finish. Seven days later he repeated the result in dry conditions at MotorLand Aragon.
The younger Marquez has had a challenging start to his second season in the premier class. Difficulties with front-tyre allocation at the opening two races in Qatar and bad luck last time out at Jerez, where he was taken out by another rider, have seen the 25-year-old Spaniard finish only one race so far.
On that occasion he managed to regain some confidence after his non-finishes in Qatar and score an eighth place at the Portuguese GP, chasing home older brother Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team Honda RC213V).
Following the Jerez race, Marquez and the rest of the MotoGP grid stayed at the track for a one-day test, during which he evaluated new parts from HRC, honed machine set-up and continued rebuilding his confidence.
Marquez has good reason to be confident for this weekend, whatever the weather. In 2019 he won the Moto2 race at Le Mans, in the dry.
Honda’s top-ranking rider in the 2021 MotoGP title chase is Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda IDEMITSU Honda RC213V) who at Jerez equalled his best-ever MotoGP result with a fourth place, just 0.69 seconds shy of the podium.
Like his LCR team-mate, Nakagami had a bruising start to the season in Qatar, struggling with front grip, but since the championship moved to Europe last month the 29-year-old from Chiba has been climbing an upward curve. The one-day test at Jerez allowed him to improve his feeling with his RC213V and his lap-time consistency, which brings him to the French Grand Prix in positive mood.
Last year Nakagami took a hard-fought seventh place at Le Mans, only four seconds off the podium. And he scored the first top-five result of his Grand Prix career at the track way back in 2009, when he finished fifth in the soaking-wet 125cc French GP.
This will be another vital weekend for the older Marquez, Honda’s six-times MotoGP World Champion, who contests his third race since a nine-month layoff through injury.
Marquez returned in Portugal, where he rode a remarkable race to seventh, even though he wasn’t up to full race fitness. At Jerez he took the chequered flag in ninth place, but more significantly he finished closer to the winner than he had a fortnight earlier.
Marquez has won four Grand Prix races at Le Mans – the Moto2 race in 2011 and the MotoGP race in 2014, 2018 and 2019. He didn’t win his first MotoGP race at the track in 2013 but that day he highlighted his otherworldly talent – the race was his first in the rain on a MotoGP but it took him just eight laps to be the fastest rider on the track! It was only his fourth MotoGP race, and his second pole position in the class.
Team-mate Pol Espargaro (Repsol Honda Team Honda RC213V) joined Honda at the start of this year and went into his first season with the company following a preseason training programme very much shortened due to COVID-19, so he is still adapting to his RC213V.
The Jerez test day was therefore of particular use to the 29-year-old Spaniard, who continued his adaptation to the bike, without the usual pressure of having to record lap times during a GP weekend. He also worked his way through numerous set-up options – ergonomics, aerodynamics and electronics – to fine-tune the small details that make such a difference in MotoGP.
Espargaro finished third in the rain at Le Mans last year. He has won a single Grand Prix at the track – the 125cc French GP – when he shared the podium with his current Repsol Honda team-mate!
Le Mans has hosted the French GP on and off since 1969, sharing the event with Circuit Paul Ricard, on the country’s Mediterranean coast until 2000, when Le Mans became its permanent home.
The MotoGP event doesn’t use the part-street circuit used in the world-renowned 24-hour car race, but the shorter Bugatti layout. This circuit is dominate by lower-speed corners, apart from the super-quick Turn One. Excellent braking, turning and acceleration performance are therefore essential at Le Mans.
Honda won its first premier-class GP at the track with Freddie Spencer (Honda NS500) in 1983. Spencer won again, with the NSR500, in 1985. Since then Eddie Lawson (Honda NSR500), Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda NSR500), Alex Criville (Repsol Honda NSR500), Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda RC211V), Sete Gibernau (Honda RC211V), Marco Melandri (Honda RC211V), Casey Stoner (Repsol Honda RC212V) and Marquez have won at the track.
After Sunday’s racing the paddock heads south for the Italian and Catalan GPs, on the last weekend of May and the first weekend of June.